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Beyond Grace Brothers

Posted 8th September 2019

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Mrs. Slocombe, Mr. Humphries and Miss Brahms as backing singers

Something very odd happens in Episode 54 of Are You Being Served?, you know. Something which has never happened before.

Mind you, Series 8 of the show had already seen its fair share of upheaval. We wave goodbye to Mr. Goldberg, see in Mr. Grossman… then four episodes in, wave goodbye to Mr. Grossman and say hello to Mr. Klein, turning the Men’s department into a full-on ridiculous revolving door situation. We also say goodbye to Mr. Lucas, who admittedly had been lessening in importance for years, but was our original audience identification figure in the show’s early days. In his place comes the enormous waste of time and space which is Mr. Spooner.1 Finally, Young Mr. Grace disappears – he briefly returns for the 1981 Christmas special, but that’s it – and hands over the reins to Old Mr. Grace, who somehow manages to be even more of a creepy fucker than his predecessor.

Elsewhere, there are signs that the show itself is getting restless. While Croft displayed a taste for expanding the scope of his other sitcoms – with perhaps a few rickety film sequences too many in Dad’s Army and the like – for the first seven series, Are You Being Served? stayed resolutely within the walls of the Grace Brothers department store.2 Most of the action takes place on the shop floor of the Ladies and Gentlemen’s departments, the canteen, or an office. Occasionally they might sneak into the boardroom, and the show took the odd trip to other departments – most memorably in Series 5’s “A Change Is as Good as a Rest”, where they all go and work in the Toy Department for a week. But we never, ever go outside the building. Grace Brothers is all we ever see.

However, Series 8 immediately pushes this idea as far down, and then as far up, as it can go. The first episode of the series, “Is It Catching?”, immediately dumps our gang into the basement of the store, under quarantine. Three episodes later, “Sit Out” does the exact opposite: our heroes stage a protest on the roof of Grace Brothers. You can feel the series straining at its self-imposed leash.

Our gang in the basement

Is it Catching?

Our gang on the roof

Sit Out

With this in mind, it’s perhaps not surprising that two episodes later, the show did the unthinkable… and went out of the store entirely. Which does make sense; after 53 episodes, surely the series was struggling for ideas. Opening the show out a bit gives them many more avenues to explore. But equally, it’s a risk. Changing any element of the show’s format this late on has the potential to wreck what your audience liked about it in the first place.

And let’s face it: Series 8 is definitely not many people’s favourite series of the show. Most of that comes down to the cast changes, of course; losing three beloved characters in one go is an upheaval for any show, and even if it’s done well, there are always people who aren’t willing to go along with it. But there is also a general sense from some that the show is simply running out of ideas. And while most people couldn’t point specifically to the show’s format changing to allow outside locations… I think they can feel that something is different.

But random grumblings are one thing; a specific examination of the programme is quite another. Let’s take a look at every single episode of the show which features scenes set somewhere other than Grace Brothers. Is it a desperate act to try and keep the programme fresh, which fails? Or does opening out the show slightly give it a new lease of life? Or is this just the kind of false dichotomy which blights modern-day analysis of pop culture?

*   *   *

Closed Circuit (TX: 21/05/81)

WAITER: Madame, a nice apéritif?
MRS. SLOCOMBE: Oh, thank you. And they’re my own, too.

The gang at the restaurantOur first visit outside the walls of Grace Brothers? A restaurant. Possibly the most obvious location they could have chosen.3

The thing about this: in nearly any other sitcom, our characters going to a restaurant would be entirely normal. It’s only weird because the series has waited 54 episodes before doing it. So the initial query is: why exactly did Croft and Lloyd do it?

Let’s take a look at the plot. The gang are shooting a commercial to play on TVs throughout the store. (Just go with it.) It turns out that although Miss Brahms looks the part, she certainly doesn’t sound it. Cue Old Mr. Grace’s nurse dubbing over her lines… which enchants an extremely rich man who phones up the store and asks to meet with the lady with the angelic voice. (Just go with it.) Miss Brahms ends up arranging a meeting at a restaurant, but unfortunately, Mr. Grace and his nurse show up as well. When the rich man finally appears, he immediately overhears Mr. Grace’s nurse and sweeps her off her feet, leaving Miss Brahms rejected and mournful. (Just go with it.)

The thing which strikes me about the above: it could easily be rewritten to have all the action take place within the store. Indeed, wouldn’t it make more sense for the rich dude to appear at Grace Brothers itself, trying to woo Miss Brahms? For a start, you wouldn’t have to deal with the convenient matter that the nurse and Old Mr. Grace just happen to be dining at the same restaurant Miss Brahms was supposed to meet him at.

But that misses the point. The whole reason we have the restaurant setting isn’t really for the plot. It’s so they can do a load of silly restaurant jokes. Which, it has to be said, succeeds spectacularly. It’s notable that the scene gets a raucous reaction from the studio audience.

MR. HUMPHRIES: I’ll have the venison.
WAITER: It’s very well hung, sir.
MR. HUMPHRIES: That is of no interest to me whatsoever.

On the basis of this episode, the experiment seems to be well worthwhile. And we wouldn’t have to wait long for the gang to go even further afield. The very next episode, in fact… and the last episode of Series 8.

The Erotic Dreams of Mrs. Slocombe (TX: 28/05/81)

NURSE: What ballet are you going to see?
CAPTAIN PEACOCK: The Nutcracker Suite.

The gang at the balletIf a restaurant was the most obvious place to put our heroes outside the walls of Grace Brothers, this episode is perhaps the next most obvious: a night at the theatre. Specifically, a ballet.

Not that we ever see any of the ballet itself. The show doesn’t open itself up that much. In fact, we spend all our time facing entirely the opposite direction, watching our characters in the audience. And in the process, the episode serves up one of my favourite sequences in the entire run of the show.

But first, the plot. Mrs. Slocombe has decided she has taken a fancy to Mr. Humphries, in one of the odder recurring motifs of the series. It’s decided that the only way for Mr. Humphries to get her to stop harassing him is by calling her bluff. The answer: a work outing to the theatre. Unlike the previous episode, however, the show doesn’t just use the situation to do a load of theatre jokes.4

Instead, we have one of the most brilliant interactions with Mr. Humphries and Miss Brahms the show ever did – a rare pairing, but one brilliantly exploited here. Eight series in, this is the show doing something brand new. Not only are there plenty of shows which can’t say that, but it’s the entire opposite of the reputation Are You Being Served? has for running out of steam at this point in the show’s life.

The sequence deserves better than my description. Just watch it. May I present: Miss Brahms teaching Mr. Humphries the art of seduction.

If that isn’t the series at its absolute best, I don’t know what is. Yet again, the show stretches its format… and is rewarded for doing so.

One other thing worthy of note: a pattern is already emerging for how the show deals with its locations outside of Grace Brothers. Each episode so far has spent most of the programme still inside the store, and then finally goes somewhere else for the climax. Indeed, this pattern even applies to “Is It Catching?” and “Sit Out” as well. This helps ground the programme as still being mainly about the store; if an episode immediately started in a different location, it really would feel like the wrong show.

Monkey Business (TX: 20/05/83)

MRS. SLOCOMBE: What we need is someone with charm and charisma. Someone who’s not too far one way or the other.
MR. HUMPHRIES: Very kind of you.5

The gang at 10 Downing StreetThankfully, we get to skip over the 1981 Christmas special “Roots?”, and head straight into Series 9. Oddly enough, only one episode in this series has any scenes set outside the store, representing a slight pull-back on the concept from before. Still, after visiting a restaurant and a theatre, where is the next most obvious place the series could go?

Erm… 10 Downing Street, apparently. OK, whatever.

The plot then, such as it is. Grace Brothers is about to be taken over by Japanese businessmen, which gives the show plenty of chances to use a shortened version of the word “Japanese” and make jokes about eating rice.6 In order to try to save the store, our heroes decide to try and get a hearing with Mrs. Thatcher.

Let’s be perfectly clear about this: the gang’s visit to 10 Downing Street has precisely no bearing on the outcome of the episode. Indeed, they barely get to meet Thatcher herself. Mr. Humphries does, but the only thing they discuss is choosing a hat for PMQs, and the details of his mother’s washing. This isn’t necessarily a huge problem in itself – squint at Are You Being Served? and it’s either a sitcom, sketch show, or variety show depending on what’s going on at the time – but it does mean that the onus is on the scene to be amusing, at the very least.

The result is a mixed bag. On the plus side, we have this:

CAPTAIN PEACOCK: Lloyd George, keeping secret the fact that his secretary was also his mistress. I wonder what words were used when they were alone together in this room.

Miss Brahms returns from the toilet.

MISS BRAHMS: It’s not as big as I thought it would be.

On the minus side, Mrs. Slocombe talking to Ronald Reagan doesn’t feel as amusing as it should do for the big set piece of the scene. And when you have Mr. Humphries talking to an mostly-out-of-shot Mrs. Thatcher, it’s difficult to feel that they wrung enough comedy out of all this to make it worth the bizarre nature of the enterprise.7 Unlike our first two examples, the world of the show feels a little broken.

Never mind, the episode ends back at Grace Brothers, with the two Japanese businessmen sticking their fingers up at the shop floor staff and blowing a raspberry. Everything ends up right again.

The Hold Up (TX: 04/03/85)

MRS. SLOCOMBE: Say, pa, don’t kill that one. I kinda like his style. Come down and see me some time.
BURGLAR: Er… don’t you mean come up and see you?
MRS. SLOCOMBE: No. I live in the basement.

Rumbold in his bedOnto the final series, where no fewer than four episodes have action away from the store in one way or another.

“The Hold Up”, however, is pretty much the polar opposite of our gang hanging around 10 Downing Street causing trouble. This episode’s location outside Grace Brothers is as prosaic as you can get: Mr. Rumbold’s bedroom. Sadly, we don’t get an episode where he catches his wife and his secretary making love together, or anything.

Indeed, the inclusion of Mr. Rumbold’s bedroom is an odd one, and could have been easily avoided. It’s hardly essential to the plot, which is rather interesting this week: robbers breaking into the store during an overnight annual stocktake feels like a great idea which could have shown up far earlier than Series 10. Through a bizarre series of events – including Miss Brahms dropping the only key to the store out the window – our gang are locked in with the miscreants, and are forced to call Rumbold to get the key to the safe. Cue the sight of an annoyed Rumbold waking up in bed next to his wife, and accusing the gang of their usual practical jokes.

But it really does feel peculiar. Unlike previous episodes where we’ve gone outside Grace Brothers, we only get a few shots of Rumbold’s bedroom; it’s hardly the major point of the episode. The fact it figures so insignificantly actually makes it feel weirder than usual; what’s the point going there at all? It would be incredibly easy to just see our side of the conversation, and leave his side to the imagination. Presumably, a couple of series earlier, that’s exactly what they would have done.

But strangest of all: when the show has gone outside Grace Brothers before, it’s been in a public space, like a restaurant or theatre. Even 10 Downing Street – as weird as it is – is really just another workplace. But here we go somewhere we have never gone before: into the private life of one of our characters. Moreover, it’s exceedingly intimate – he’s in bed with his wife. To do this, and then have very little come of it, just doesn’t feel right at all. After all, this is the show that even in Series 7 concocted a bizarre story where Mrs. Slocombe moves into the Furniture Fitting Department, just so the series can do a load of domestic jokes without breaking the format of the show. If we were going to go into Rumbold’s bedroom, it surely needed to be for a bigger and better reason than this.

Oh, and by the way, this whole episode makes no sense, as it entirely relies on the staff of Grace Brothers being trapped in the building overnight. Fire exits were a thing in 1985. What a load of bollocks.

The Night Club (TX: 18/03/85)

MRS. SLOCOMBE: Have they just got married?
MR. HUMPHRIES: Just met by a lake. I think he’s been in prison.
MRS. SLOCOMBE: Hmmm. For quite a long time.

The gang at a cinemaAnd so into the last three episodes ever of the series, all of which involve action outside of Grace Brothers. Can you feel the series itching at the leash?8

Oddly enough, “The Night Club” doesn’t actually place in a night club, which feels like a wasted opportunity. I wanted to see Mrs. Slocombe eye some lovely young man across the room, and then go in for the kill. Instead, we have a convoluted plot where they decide to set up a night club at Grace Brothers to earn the store some extra money… and to do that, they need to record an advert. Instead, our outside location is at a cinema, where said advert is going to premiere. A cinema which also makes a nice sideline in showing pornography.9

“The Night Club” seems to go out of its way to be frustrating. Firstly, we are denied our promised actual night club. Then, the central sequence is the advert being made… which is essentially a retread of “It Pays to Advertise” and “Closed Circuit”, but nowhere near as amusing. And once we get to the actual cinema itself, the key gag is that due to technical problems, the advert is run in sound only, and that everything they’ve recorded suddenly sounds rude. This already slightly forced idea isn’t helped by the fact that it drags on and on; the joke only really deserves three or four quick lines.

I want to see the gang having fun and games at the cinema. I think there was a great episode to be done there. But I’m not entirely sure this was the way to do it.

Friends and Neighbours (TX: 25/03/85)

MISS BRAHMS: It all smells of mothballs.
MRS. SLOCOMBE: Oh well, a good scrub will soon get rid of that. My only problem is, will my pussy feel at home in a strange place?

Miss Brahms and Mrs. Slocombe in an apartmentEarlier on, I mentioned “The Apartment” from Series 7: Mrs. Slocombe becomes (temporarily) homeless, and moves to the Furniture Fitting Department while everything gets sorted out. We then get to do a load of stupid jokes about her setting up home, and everybody wanting to move in with her.

In other words: while most series could just cut to the home life of our characters to do some domestic jokes, Are You Being Served? had to find an excuse to do them. To be fair, it worked brilliantly, and included quite possibly the rudest joke of the entire run of the show.

Indeed, it worked so well that the series decided to do it again. This time, everybody is so poor due to increasing travel costs that they can’t afford the trip into work. Our (now unseen) Young Mr. Grace kindly offers use of his private apartments above Grace Brothers which we have never ever ever heard of before and will never ever ever hear of again.10 Cue a load of scenes of the staff living together, with Mrs. Slocombe ordering around Miss Brahms, and Mr. Humphries looking after a couple of babies for some reason.

It feels like poking our nose into the staff’s domestic life was worth another trip to the well, but sadly they don’t really do very much with the idea. There’s the odd moment that shines – I highly enjoy Mrs. Slocombe telling Mr. Humphries to sit beside her and “give me a baby” – but far too much time is taken up with some farce with a disappearing/reappearing bed. Oddly enough, I would argue the episode spends far too much time still on the shop floor to give the apartment shenanigans enough time to build up into something truly satisfying.11

Still, when this episode was broadcast, nobody could have known that it actually pointed the way towards the entire future of the show. The spin-off Grace & Favour which aired seven years later took the staff out of Grace Brothers… and put them living together in an old country manor. And whatever faults that series might have, it’s far more successful than this episode. The basic idea of “The Apartment” is strong… but it needed its own series in order to do it justice.

The Pop Star (TX: 01/04/85)

MR HUMPHRIES: I was just repricing my stock. I’ve put the shirts up 95 pence and the gloves and ties up 50. And if it’s alright with you, I’d like to drop my trousers and display my Y-fronts.

Mr. Spooner in a regional news studioAnd so to the last ever Are You Being Served?… and we bow out with a most peculiar episode. An episode which, arguably, they should have done a long time ago. An attempt to give Bert Spooner a character.

In case I hadn’t made it abundantly clear, I’ve never really liked Bert. I don’t especially blame Mike Berry for this; the fault was as much in the writing as anything. It took all of the worst traits of Mr. Lucas’s insults towards Mrs. Slocombe – fine in themselves, but definitely overused in later years – and gave him nothing else to do. The result was a character which I often found just a little unpleasant to watch.

This episode, at least, gives him more. After a spectacular performance at the Department Store Annual Concert, he gets offered a contract from a record company. And after the usual ideas which spin off from this – our gang vying to be backing singers, recording a demo, and, erm, getting blown up by gunpowder in a rather unfortunate photography session – we get the climax of the show, and indeed the climax of Are You Being Served? itself.

And it’s all wrong. The gang end up in a studio, performing on regional news programme Around London, and due to a mix-up with the tape, they end up miming to “Chanson D’Amour” at double speed. (A joke already done in “The Father Christmas Affair” nine years earlier, and not dragged out like it is here.) We’ve spent years with these characters, seeing their trials and tribulations on the shop floor. I don’t require some huge, era-shattering conclusion to the episode, where they all get handed their P45s – unlike, for instance, It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, the show was never especially plot-driven. But finally, the show’s new-found taste for going outside the walls of Grace Brothers catches up with them. Just at the moment where I wanted something which reminds me of everything I loved about the show… it goes sideways. And into an area which – even with the song and stupid costumes – doesn’t feel much like the show I loved at all.

At this point, it seems worth investigating whether this was, in fact, how the show was meant to end. In The Story of Are You Being Served?, broadcast on BBC Two on New Year’s Day 2010, Production Manager Robin Carr said the following:

“When we got to the very end, we shot this big musical number, thinking: well, if this is the end, we’re going out with a bang here. But we didn’t really know if it would be the end… there wasn’t that feeling of “We’ll never meet again” sort of thing. It was “maybe we’ll see each other next spring”.

In other words: they were hedging their bets. Seeing as they knew this is how the show could have ended, however, it feels legitimate to criticise the episode on that basis. If Are You Being Served? was going to end, it should have ended in style on the shop floor. For the show to end in a regional news studio is just irritating. It says nothing about the wider show at all. Ironically, it feels… small. It certainly feels inconsequential. There’s a reason why the last shot we see of Peggy in Hi-de-Hi! is her leaping up in the air in a deserted Maplins.

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It’s worth pondering: before all the above shenanigans take place, why does Are You Being Served? stay within the walls of Grace Brothers for so long?

The obvious answer is, of course: it’s a workplace sitcom.12 Workplaces are often their own little part of your life, separate from the rest of it; you may even behave entirely differently at work than at any other time. From this point of view, only seeing what happens inside Grace Brothers makes sense. And of course, that’s true.

But there are many shows which are workplace sitcoms, which still take the time to let us see our characters outside work. Drop the Dead Donkey spends most of its time in the newsroom, but it goes outside it enough for it to become a recognisable part of the show’s format. The IT Crowd is a workplace sitcom, but the second episode involves Jen walking down the high street. Or if we want to focus in on Croft sitcoms: Hi-de-Hi! is a workplace sitcom, but the first episode starts off at Cambridge University, and then follows our characters on a train.

In other words: sure, it makes sense for most of Are You Being Served? to be set within Grace Brothers. But – until the nonsense above pokes its nose in – it is an unusually pure example of the form. Croft usually loved his film sequences; it’s worth noting that even including what we’ve talked about here, there are no location sequences in the entire run of the show. This is hermetically sealed sitcom; the outside world is rarely allowed to intervene.

So it would be incredibly easy to argue that letting the outside world intrude at all was a mistake. But I don’t think this is true. The above instances of the show breaking loose of the format run the entire gamut from some of the best material the show has to offer, right through to one of the worst mistakes the show ever made. Breaking format is not always a terrible thing. It just has to be done with a hand firmly on the rudder. Are You Being Served? starts off by doing exactly this… but eventually, it drifts. And ends up with less successful instances – and eventually into something which compromises the show in its closing moments.

Man, I dream of a final 1985 Christmas Special to wrap everything up. Entirely set inside the store. They can still all dress up in silly costumes.

There might even be some dancing.

With many thanks to Gary Rodger of The Sitcom Club podcast for help with this article. Give their editions on Are You Being Served? and Grace & Favour a listen.

  1. I know there will be Mr. Spooner fans reading this. Sorry. *pulls that face Mr. Spooner pulls* 

  2. Ignore the film. In every respect. 

  3. A bit of fun for you: next time you watch this episode, take a look through the door of the restaurant, and note where you can see through the back of the set… and glimpse the Grace Brothers’ stairs and lift behind it. 

  4. Though I really want to call your attention to this for some beautiful visual comedy. 

  5. Incidentally, this episode includes one of the worst exchanges in the entire run of the show. After Mr. Humphries gets his – deserved – laugh with that line, we get the following from Mr. Spooner:

    “Well, who else isn’t ‘too far one way or the other’?”

    Complete with pathetic limp hand gesture. This takes a joke which Mr. Humphries is in full control of – which is precisely what makes it funny – and turns it into a straight character mocking him. Luckily, the studio audience also realise this is pathetic, and he barely gets a laugh. Meanwhile, I want to punch Mr. Spooner in the face. 

  6. There was clearly something in the air this week. Apropos of nothing, early on in the episode we get a mention of “Mr. Patel” and his “curry vouchers”. Sigh. 

  7. I’m not going to complain that the show should have been scoring political points against Thatcher. With the portrayal of Mr. Humphries, the show is busy enough making political points of its own. 

  8. Thank you, Bernard. 

  9. There’s an interesting article in how pre-watershed family sitcoms deal with the subject of porn, and I’m probably the one to write it. 

  10. For the record, I did ponder as to whether this episode even belongs in this article. I didn’t include “Is It Catching?” and “Sit Out” because I thought the basement and the roof of the store just counted as the episodes still being set entirely at Grace Brothers. Apartments above the store are a weird grey area. In the end, I decided that although they’re part of the actual building, they aren’t part of the store itself, and so don’t count, but I fully admit it’s a bit of a grey area. Especially as the climax of “Sit Out” presumably takes place on top of these apartments, and I didn’t include that. 

  11. Though it is nice to see Carol Cleveland pop up, playing a customer. 

  12. Off the point here, but Joel Morris makes the interesting point here that Blackadder is a workplace sitcom. “Idiots giving orders, idiots below him, stuck unappreciated in the middle. A recognisable feeling to most working people. Historical Reggie Perrin. MASH in tights.” Which is the kind of brilliant observation that entirely changes how you think about a TV show.

    Once you realise that the definition of a workplace sitcom can be so fluid, then all kinds of shows suddenly become one. It Ain’t Half Hot Mum is most definitely a workplace sitcom, for instance. It’s just that their work happens to involve dressing up in silly costumes in India during the second World War. 

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